May 31, 2013 3:35 pm
Cloud gazing seems like it should be a uniquely human activity—who else would stare up at the sky and turning wisps of clouds into shapes and faces? But, now, a robot can do that, too. What’s happening there? Is the robot…imagining?
This robot is named Cloud Face, and it’s a face-detection algorithm that can look at pictures of cloud and detect ones that look like human faces. The program comes from Shinseungback Kimyonghun, who describes it this way:
‘Cloud Face’ is a collection of cloud images that are recognized as human face by a face-detection algorithm. It is a result of computer’s vision error, but they look like faces to human eyes, too. This work attempts to examine the relation between computer vision and human vision.
Kimyonghun figured this out mostly accidentally. He told Fast Company that the whole thing started with a webcam that was supposed to capture human faces:
“One day, I hooked a webcam and a snack bag, and cast the fishing rod out to the window of my studio,” the studio’s Kim Yong Hun explains. “I expected that it would capture faces of passersby when they look at the bait. After a few hours later, it actually got some faces of people staring at it. However, there were also many images that were not faces. That was because the face-detection algorithm often found patterns of building walls and streets as faces.
At Fast Company, they sell the project as “an imaginative robot.” Mark Wilson writes:
Looking through the images almost kicks you in the gut. Because it’s one thing if Facebook can auto-tag my friend’s faces on my uploaded photographs, but it’s a whole other thing if some snippet of code can lay beside me on a grassy knoll, point to the sky, and make a convincing argument as to why a bit of puffy condensation resembles a dude on a train eating a donut.
But is this robot really “imaginative?” Can robots imagine?
It depends on how you describe imagination. In one paper, computer scientists talk about building a robot with “functional imagination,” which they describe as ” the purposeful manipulation of information that is not directly available to the senses – references to imagination always point to something that in reality is not there.” There are other researchers teaching robots to imagine what humans might want—in this case, how humans might want to arrange furniture in a room. Ashutosh Saxena at Cornell is trying to figure out how to get robots to put themselves in human shoes. IEEE Spectrum explains:
Essentially, what Saxena’s group is doing is teaching robots to use their imaginations by placing virtual humans in the environment that they want to organize, and then figuring out what those virtual humans are likely to do.
So the cloud face project isn’t the only thing where computers are creating fantasy images and scenarios. And there’s another project quite like the cloud face one, called Google Face. Created by Onformative, Google Face scours Google Earth for things that look like faces.
This concept—the idea that we can see faces in blobs (like the face on the moon)—is called “pareidoliak.” To humans, the world is full of faces in clouds, earth, grilled cheeses and oil slicks. We see them everywhere. And now, apparently, we’ve taught robots to, as well.
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March 6, 2013 11:48 am
A self-appointed German bishop from the order of Corpus Dei (spoiler alert: it’s not an official order of the Catholic church) made it through Vatican security and infiltrated a meeting of cardinals preparing for the arduous process of choosing a new pope.
Ralph Napierski, the fake bishop in question, has been on the church’s radar for some time, says Time:
“He does not work with any of our institutions in any way,” a spokesman for the Berlin Catholic diocese told the German newspaper Bild Zeitung, according to Spiegel Online. The spokesman said Napierski is “self-aggrandizing,” writes angry letters and preaches about sex.
On Napierski’s website, which feature photographs of him posing as a priest with Church officials and politicians, he claims to be adept in “revealing the ancient hidden spiritual practices.” He is a proponent of “Jesus Yoga” and claims to have invented a system that allows people to control computers with their minds.
While the higher-ups of the Catholic church are unlikely to let a little Jesus Yoga distract them from the historic process of pope-selecting, the official police force of Vatican City, the Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City State, has acknowledged a need for tighter security during this week’s meetings:
Following Napierski’s attempted infiltration, the Vatican held discussions on improving their security procedures — which already include sweeping the Sistine Chapel for listening devices.
Monday’s meeting was the first in a series happening at the Vatican this week, during which the 103 cardinals present (out of 115 who are eligible to participate in the process) will mingle, discuss the future of the church and prepare themselves for the official Conclave, at which a new pope will be elected. Vatican officials have been working around the clock to get St. Peter’s Basilica and other important buildings ready for the process:
“It is unlikely we will set a date today,” the Rev. Thomas Rosica told reporters. “For one thing, the chapel is not yet ready.”
Workers have started installing floorboards to protect the chapel’s marble floors as well as the stove to burn the ballots and communicate the election results.
The last Conclave happened in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II and lasted for just over 24 hours.
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March 5, 2013 1:23 pm
That Italian leather handbag you’re sporting might have a more complicated history than you think.
According to environmentalists, deforestation in Brazil (removing trees so the land can be used for other, non-forest purposes) is on the rise, and the fashion houses of Italy are one of the culprits. Brazilian cows, who provide the leather used in products made by Valentino, Ferragamo and other high-end labels, need space on which to roam, graze and conduct important cow business, and ranchers are all too happy to engage in a little tree-burning to make that happen for their charges. The Guardian breaks it down:
A 2009 Greenpeace study proved that ranches were still illegally clearing rainforest and that the leather was going straight into the supply chain of major brands. One hectare of rainforest was lost to ranches every 18 seconds. Following the money as well as the trees, Greenpeace found that the enterprise was underpinned by state-funded banks. While former president Lula made speeches about saving the “lungs of the earth” (the Brazilian Amazon stores 80-120bn tonnes of carbon), the state sponsored its wholesale destruction.
By July 2012, official figures showed deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to be down by 76% from its high in 2004, but NGOs monitoring the situation report an alarming new upturn. President Dilma Rousseff has recently allowed two reforms to the Forest Code that researchers claim will increase deforestation in Brazil by 47% by 2020. If you’ll excuse the phrase, we are not out of the woods.
On the plus side, some fashion houses are scrambling to avoid getting slapped with an anti-rainforest label, and are attempting to source environmentally clean leather:
A new version of Gucci’s Jackie bag will be unveiled at Paris Fashion Week. There have been many incarnations of this slouchy handbag since its launch in the 50s – named for Jackie Onassis, as it was one of her favourite accessories – and the style was most recently revived in 2009. But this latest version stands apart. Gucci had stopped using Brazilian leather in the wake of the 2009 Greenpeace report, but it now sources supplies for the Jackie bag from a deforestation-free zone.
The bag, which retails at more than $2,000 dollars, comes with its own passport, declaring it deforestation-free.
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February 11, 2013 2:32 pm
Elephants seem to know that people mean trouble, according to new research conducted around Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Tanzania. Elephants living within the park’s boundaries, scientists found, are significantly less stressed than those living outside of its protective borders. Accordingly, the BBC reports, more elephants choose to make a home within the park than outside of it.
Though national parks in Africa are under siege by rampant poaching for elephant’s valuable tusks, parks do offer some protection from the threats of illegal hunting and habitat disturbance. Serengeti National Park contains no fences, however, so people and animals can come and go from its nearly 15,000 square kilometer expanse.
The new study aimed to see how elephants were doing within the park and in adjacent game reserves where human disturbance is greater. Rather than bother the elephants, scientists used the animals’ dung as a proxy for gaging stress levels. Animals outside of the park, they found, had higher levels of the stress hormone gluccorticoid than those living within its boundaries.
More elephants lived with the park, and researchers did not find evidence of single males roaming outside of the park. The researchers suspect that elephants may have learned to associate areas outside of the park with vehicles and hunting activities.
“I think elephants know where they are safe or not. However, sometimes they also are tempted by nice food outside the park which attracts them to such areas,” the researchers told BBC.
The researchers hope the study results will show park officials and decision makers that protected areas do indeed improve welfare for animals such as elephants.
“The elephant population in Africa is presently declining at an alarming rate,” the researchers said. “The world must find interest in it, if not there will be very few or no elephants in Africa in about five to six years.”
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February 1, 2013 3:21 pm
Grand Central Terminal, the country’s most recognizable transportation hub, celebrates its 100th birthday today.
A legacy of the Vanderbilt family (whose adopted symbol, the acorn, sits atop the terminal’s trademark clock), Grand Central is more than just ticket booths, tracks and platforms, of which there are 44, making it the largest train station in the world based on platform number.
It’s a city within a city, housing 50 shops, 20 eateries, five restaurants, newsstands, a fresh food market and multiple passageways to maneuver around it all. Its train and subway systems serve nearly 200,000 commuters daily. In total, every day more than 700,000 people pass through the terminal, a Beaux-Arts style transportation hub that took ten years and $80 million to complete.
A quintessential New York spot, the 48-acre centenarian brings in approximately 21.6 million visitors each year. They come to see the cavernous main concourse and gaze up at the arched painted ceiling, to which as many as 50 painters contributed. The mural depicts constellations of the Mediterranean sky, but in reverse—an error that transportation officials explained away as an astronomical representation from God’s perspective.
Visitors also come to survey the 50-foot statues on Grand Central’s south face depicting Mercury, Hercules and Minerva, the gods of, respectively, travelers, strength and commerce. And they come to see for themselves the famous four-faced, 13-foot-wide Tiffany glass and opal clocks.
Grand Central Terminal has a storied past, with several well-kept secrets that have since been exposed. A “whispering gallery” in the dining concourse near the Oyster Bar, a restaurant as old as the terminal itself, allows a quiet voice to travel from one end to the other, thanks to acoustics created by low ceramic arches. Past a door inside the information booth is a hidden spiral staircase, leading down to another information kiosk.
During World War II, German military intelligence learned of a once-secret basement known as M42, which contains converters used to supply electric currents to trains. Spies were sent to sabotage it, but the FBI arrested them before they could strike.
A train platform with a concealed entrance, number 61, was once used to transport President Franklin D. Roosevelt directly into the nearby Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
In 1957, a NASA rocket was displayed inside the terminal, a move meant to encourage support for the country’s space program as it raced against the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik. A six-inch hole was carved into the ceiling to help support the missile, and it remains amidst the mural’s 2,500 stars.
In 1976, a group of Croatian nationalists planted a bomb in one of the terminal’s lockers, and the subsequent attempt to disarm the device killed a bomb squad specialist and injured 30 others.
The terminal’s interior has also been the backdrop to several Hollywood classics. In 1933, Bing Crosby received a star-studded sendoff at Track 27 in “Going Hollywood.” Twenty years later, Fred Astaire hopped off a train and danced up track 34 in a Technicolor musical number in “The Band Wagon.” The following year, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck kissed inside the terminal before making their getaway in “Spellbound.” The 1959 action classic “North by Northwest” opens with a montage of New Yorkers bustling through the terminal, and Cary Grant later makes a nighttime escape through the main concourse.
Once dedicated to long-distance travel, Grand Central Terminal is now home to the Metro-North Railroad, the largest commuter railroad service in the United States. Three train hubs have stood at 42nd and Park Avenue since the 19th century. In 1871, Grand Central Depot consolidated several New York railroads into one station until it was partially demolished three decades later. What remained, dubbed Grand Central Station, doubled in height and received a new façade. Several years later, in 1913, a decade-long project transformed the hub into the iconic terminal anchoring midtown Manhattan today.
But the terminal’s fate hasn’t always been so secure. In the 1950s, multiple real estate developers proposed replacing it with towers, some 500 feet taller than the Empire State Building. By the late 1960s, the growing popularity of government-subsidized interstate highways and air travel had sapped the customer pool of railroads across the country. Grand Central wasn’t immune. Over time, the ceiling became obscured by tar and tobacco smoke residue, and commercial billboards blocked out natural light from streaming in.
By 1968, New York Central Railroad, which operated the terminal, was facing bankruptcy, and it merged with Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central. The new company unveiled another tower proposal that year, but the plans drew significant opposition, most notably from former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The terminal became a historic landmark in 1978, following a Supreme Court decision to protect the transportation hub, the first time the court had ruled on a matter of historic preservation.
In the 1990s, the terminal saw a massive, two-year, $196 million renewal project under Metro-North. The ceiling of the Main Concourse was restored, revealing the painted skyscape, the billboard were removed to let light in and the original baggage room was replaced with a mirror image of the west staircase, a feature that had been included in original blueprints but hadn’t come to fruition.
But Grand Central Terminal won’t remain unchanged for long. A two-level, eight-track tunnel is being excavated under Park Avenue to bring in Long Island Rail Road trains, and by 2019, thousands more will be coming and going, arriving and departing, through this historic landmark.
Many thanks to Sam Roberts’ indispensable, comprehensive history “Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America.”
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